Tag Archive | memoir

Book Review: West with the Night

I had never heard of Beryl Markham before, so when this audio-book popped up on the library website, I was intrigued.  Markham was the first female to do a solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean from East to West – this flight was much harder than the other direction due to the strong headwinds.  She accomplished this feat on September 4, 1936, at the age of 31.

Markham’s life was amazing in many other ways.  Born in England, her family moved to Kenya when she was four years old, and she spent her childhood among lions and other African wildlife, hunting boar, and riding the racehorses her father trained.

As an adult, she moved into her father’s occupation of racehorse training, and became a celebrated trainer in Kenya.  She also learned to fly planes, and became the first female bush pilot in Africa, flying scouting missions for hunting parties as well as providing transportation around a country with few usable roads.

The book was published in 1942, and is a memoir of her life, from early childhood through her amazing solo flight.  Her writing evokes the images of life in rural Africa; you feel as if you are actually in that plane with her, looking down on the elephants and zebra below.  Her character development is superb – the cast from her life was a unique and motley crew.

Markham is a fantastic writer, but I do wish that she had spent a little more time on her Trans-Atlantic flight.  It is really only given a little bit of time at the very end of the book.  Beyond that, my only gripe would be that the audio-book reader had a bit of a monotone reading voice, which was a distraction at first.

I enjoyed this book thoroughly, learning about a strong woman and an important historical figure.  She broke barriers in a world that didn’t give women a lot of chances to do amazing things; she single-handedly did several.

If you have a chance to read it, I hope you will.  If you have already, please let me know what you thought!

Book Review: A Walk in the Woods

Bill Bryson is a humor author. More precisely, he is a baby boomer who first came into my consciousness when my book club read The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, a memoir about Bryson’s Midwest upbringing in the 1950s and 60s. It is laugh out loud funny, poking fun at the times, and reliving for his contemporaries the novelty of such innovations as the frozen dinner, and playing in the clouds of pesticide left behind by mosquito spray trucks.

A Walk in the Woods, while not as whimsical, still incorporates a healthy dose of humor as he tells the story of his decision to embark on a thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail. Never mind that he has no experience thru-hiking, or backpacking, or even doing much day hiking or camping. I consider it the pre-cursor to Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, only without the drug addiction and extremely self-destructive behavior. But Bryson has one thing that Strayed does not – a healthy (and amusing) fear of bears.

A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson

A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson

The book alternates between telling the history of the Appalachian Trail; it conception, its development, its increase in popularity over the years, and Bryson and his childhood friend Katz’s long hike. He revels in details that include savoring a soda after a week in the woods, to Katz’s emotional outbursts that result in large portions of their rations being hurtled off the sides of mountains. He also goes into great detail on various bear calamities throughout the United States, providing a who’s who of bear casualties over the last several dozen years.

While reading, you can feel the weight of the pack on your back as you trudge along with Bryson and Katz, up and down hills, over stony trails, and finally collapsing in camp at the end of the night. At which point you sleep soundly… unless you can hear what you think is a bear. He also expresses the joy of a beautiful sunrise or sunset, and the absolute peace in the woods. Any hiker can likely relate to these feelings.

A Walk in the Woods is a quick read – and I enjoyed the serious historical facts that complemented the tale of their excursion. The only part I disliked was when he retold the generalizations about the residents who were removed from Shenandoah National Park, describing them as uneducated and barely functional poor people who were far better off once the government swooped in to relocate them and save the day. But given that this book was written 20 years ago, before the true story was likely known, I’m willing to forgive him for the error.

The book is a worthwhile read, especially if you want to get a sense of what thru-hiking would really be like if you are not a serious distance hiker and camper. Just don’t feed the bears.